Robert Reich
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Is Ron DeSantis a fascist?

Is Ron DeSantis a fascist?

At the very least, it's a question worth asking.

I like to tweet. Not as much as I like to write here on Substack where I get to share my thoughts at some length. On Twitter it’s a different kind of conversation, and pace — like speed chess.

Last Tuesday I tweeted:

I was surprised at the outrage my little tweet provoked.

The Washington Examiner, for example:

Ultra left-wing elitist and former secretary of labor during the Clinton administration Robert Reich tweeted earlier this week, “Just wondering if ‘DeSantis’ is now officially a synonym for ‘fascist.’” This insulting slur has no basis, of course. This is just what left-wing ideologues do when they discuss Republican politicians who pose any threat to the existence of their political ideology. It's not grounded in any reality and is a sham. Yet, it never stops any of them from repeating the lie. Anyone the Democrats don’t like or disagree with is a fascist…. Any person using such hyperbolic, unhinged name-calling is not a serious person, and anything they say should not be deemed credible.

Fox News’s digital outlet took umbrage as did many others, with rightwing rage at my tweet ricocheting through the echo-chambers of Republican social media.

Don’t worry about me. After a half-century in and around politics, I’ve got a thick skin. But the size of the blowback on my little tweet makes me think I struck a nerve.

DeSantis has become a favorite of the GOP’s Fox News-viewing base, and the most likely rival to Trump for the Republican nomination in 2024. The Harvard and Yale educated DeSantis (what do they teach at Harvard and Yale?) has been called “Trump with a brain.” Lately DeSantis has been campaigning on behalf of Republican election-deniers around the country, including gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and US Senate candidate JD Vance in Ohio.

DeSantis is the nation’s consummate culture warrior. Consider what he has wrought in Florida:

  • Discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity are now barred in Florida schools.

  • Math textbooks have been rejected for what Florida officials call “indoctrination.”

  • Abortions are banned in Florida after 15 weeks. (DeSantis recently suspended an elected prosecutor who said he would refuse to enforce the anti-abortion law.)

  • A new state office has been created to investigate “election crimes.”

  • Florida teachers are limited in what they can teach about racism and other tragic aspects of American history. DeSantis has got personally involved in local school board races, endorsed and campaigning for 30 board candidates who agree with him (so far, 20 have won outright, five are going to runoffs).

  • Claiming tenured professors in Florida’s public universities are “indoctrinating” students, DeSantis spearheaded a law requiring them to be reviewed every five years.

  • Florida’s Medicaid regulator is considering a rule to block state-subsidized health care from paying for treatments of transgender people. Florida’s medical board recently began the process of banning gender-affirming medical treatment for youths.

  • Disney (Florida’s largest employer) has been stripped of the ability to govern itself for the first time in more than half a century, in retaliation for the company’s opposition to the crackdown on L.G.B.T.Q. conversations with schoolchildren.

  • Florida’s congressional map has been redrawn to give Republicans an even bigger advantage.

How much of a reactionary bully is DeSantis? Don't take my word for it. Here’s a smattering of some of his pearls of (dare I say, fascist) rhetoric:  “We are not going to surrender to woke,” DeSantis said last Tuesday. “Florida is the state where woke goes to die.” He has described an America under assault by left-wing elites, who “want to delegitimize our founding institutions.” DeSantis envisions his job as governor as fighting critical race theory, “Faucian dystopia,” uncontrolled immigration, Big Tech, “left-wing oligarchs,” “Soros-funded prosecutors,” transgender athletes, and the “corporate media.” The state of Florida, DeSantis says, has become a “citadel of freedom.” He charges — using a standard racist dog whistle — that “We’re not letting Florida cities burn down … In Florida, you’re not going to get a slap on the wrist. You are getting the inside of a jail cell.”

So, back to my tweet: Is it useful to characterize DeSantis’s combination of homophobia, transphobia, racism, and misogyny, along with his efforts to control the public schools and universities and to intimidate the private sector (e.g., Disney), as redolent of fascism?

America’s mainstream media is by now comfortable talking and writing about “authoritarianism.” Maybe it should also begin using the term “fascism,” where appropriate. (Even Joe Biden, who has never been known as a rhetorical bomb-thrower, last Thursday accused the GOP of “semi-fascism.” A spokesperson for the Republican National Committee called Biden’s comment “despicable.”)

Authoritarianism implies the absence of democracy, a dictatorship. Fascism (the word comes from the Latin fasces, denoting a tightly-bound bundle of wooden rods that typically included a protruding axe blade, adopted by Benito Mussolini in the 1930s to symbolize his total power) is different from mere authoritarianism. Fascism also includes hatred of “them” (people considered different by race or religion, or outside the mainstream, or who were born abroad), control over what people learn and what books they are allowed to read, control over what had been independent government units (school boards, medical boards, universities, and so on), control over women and the most intimate and difficult decisions they’ll ever make, and demands that the private sector support the regime.

Perhaps my “just wondering” tweet about DeSantis hit the nerve of the fascism now taking root in the Republican Party?

Or is DeSantis’s own nascent presidential campaign behind the outsized reaction to my tweet? After all, if you’re seeking a presidential nomination in today’s GOP, there’s nothing like an accusation of fascism to rally Trump supporters. It might be a particularly useful strategy if your primary opponent in 2024 will be Trump.

What do you think?

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